Star Trek or Ex Machina – which path are we taking to our digital future?

It’s a question posed by Nicole Aschoff, a sociologist with a keen interest in technology’s impact on society.

Speaking to an audience in Waterloo yesterday, Aschoff outlined two narratives that often frame how we talk about the future: the hopeful, collaborative vision at the heart of every storyline in the TV and movie series Star Trek; and the dystopian, machines-rule theme in the 2014 film, Ex Machina.

“It's clear that the Ex Machina vision is much more dominant in our popular narratives,” Aschoff said via video link. “The stories we tell in movies and television suggest deep anxiety about our relationships with machines, and about the digital and analogue future we are creating.”

The good new is that humans have the power to change the narrative.

 “I think we should take these fears seriously, while at the same time resisting the easy slide into fatalism and despair. If we're going to get a better grasp on how to construct the digital future, we need to get our story straight.”

Aschoff, who earned a PhD in sociology from Johns Hopkins University, is a writer, editor and commentator. Her latest book is titled, The Smartphone Society: Technology, Power, and Resistance in the New Gilded Age.

She was the first speaker in a new series called Critical Tech Talk, which is produced by the University of Waterloo’s Critical Media Lab with support from the university and Communitech. The series aims to present frank and engaging discussions about innovation and the notion of “tech for good.”

Aschoff’s talk, called The Digital Frontier and Its Limits, explored the narratives that influence our view of the role of technology in shaping society. A key focus was whether individuals are powerless in the face of global tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google.

Her thesis was optimistic: Individuals do have the power to shape the future they want, but we must put people – not technology – first in the stories we use to talk about the issue.

“The digital future is designed, developed and created by humans,” Aschoff said. “The digital frontier is something that we’re currently making. Its dimensions are not the product of some implacable force or the scheming of our alien overlords. People, not machines, are deciding the direction of society. And if we don’t like that direction, we have the power to build something better.”

When it comes to talking about technology and society, Aschoff said that we’re faced with conflicting stories. One that’s told by tech titans such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg “fits neatly" within broader Silicon Valley narratives. 

“Tech companies, we’re told over and again, are building an architecture of inclusive growth,” she said. “Their platforms, and now perhaps a metaverse, promise to not only enhance connections but to bring a new world of interpersonal trust and innovation… These networks have empowered individuals, we’re told, are creating something from nothing – new consumption experiences, new economic activity, we’re growing the pie, making new space for individuals who were left out of neoliberalism.”

But how do you square that story with the revelations made public by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen, who released a cache of documents that suggest the company’s leaders were well aware of the harmful uses to which their platform contributes?

 Both storylines fail to examine an important reality, she said.

 “The fact, for example, that a handful of private tech companies control infrastructure that is central to modern social, political and economic life, is one that we've essentially resigned ourselves to. We lament that Facebook and Twitter don’t do enough to police public speech but do little to challenge the fact that a few people effectively control public speech.

“I would argue that we don’t question these things, or at best we offer piecemeal critiques and solutions, because deep down we don’t think we can control the direction of digital technology. We believe that it’s an implacable force with quasi-metaphysical properties. Even when we are critical of Silicon Valley, we’re resigned to letting tech companies shape the digital frontier.”

Aschoff said she is optimistic that humans have “the creativity, knowledge and tools to build the digital future we want." But first we have to understand the history of the term “frontier” and its intimate relationship with “profit making.”

“Effectively, we need to talk about capitalism. Capitalism and frontiers go together in our stories. Indeed, they are linked together so often that we usually picture frontiers in terms of their subsumption into the ever-spreading for-profit system.”

Aschoff said we need to rethink the term “frontier.”

 “Frontiers are made, not opened,” she said. “People make them through creativity, culture, knowledge, technology, blood, guts, power struggles and lots of hard work.

“The creation of frontiers and capitalism has often been a brutal, nasty process in which whole societies have been wrenched from their previous way of life and forced into new configurations. Grasping how capitalism evolves and expands, how new frontiers are made, requires putting people rather than machines or digital technology into the driver’s seat.”

Aschoff argued that the current structure created by the dominance of Big Tech downplays the role that people play in “making” frontiers. It also discounts or ignores the work of many people who make the tech economy possible, such as miners, assembly line workers and warehouse employees.

Noting that Big Tech runs on data, she said it’s the users of social media who provide that data to tech giants.

“I would argue that we’re witnessing the concealment of unpaid, appropriated work on an even greater scale – work that, like women’s work in the past, is being made to appear as a natural resource, a labour of love. And this work is all of our work, the hours we spend every day on our screens, creating content and generating data, or just moving through the moments of our lives with our screens in our pocket.

“In these hours, our lives become ever more deeply enmeshed in the circuits of capital. Our appropriated work, and our digital selves more broadly, are the key to the digital frontier.”

As part of the Critical Tech Talk format, two recent University of Waterloo grads were invited to ask questions of Aschoff and share their thoughts.

One of them, systems design engineering master's grad Nolan Dey, challenged Aschoff’s view of the role of capitalism in fostering innovation. He said capitalism provides the financial incentive that drives innovation and pays for many of the benefits that technology provides.

“There’s always a delicate balance when you’re governing big companies,” he said. “But there’s also all these little guys in the technology ecosystem and they matter, too. So, if you take away ads, sure, we can treat Facebook as a utility, but now what about all the Waterloo entrepreneurs who are going to go make the next big company, right? If you take away that incentive, then that’s also really a dangerous thing, so we need something that (addresses) both – treats these things which are utilities as utilities but also still enables innovation and incentivizes it.”

Aschoff agreed that a balance was needed. But she said it’s important to think about alternative ways of fostering innovation and regaining control over the future direction of technology and society.

“Absolutely, I agree,” she said. “(But) we should be very cautious about where the horizon is and to try to think about alternative ways. Of course it’s important to provide a space for innovation, that’s absolutely true. But I think a lot of innovation also happens in non-commodified spaces, and we can foster those spaces as well.”

Asked if she felt defeated by Big Tech's dominance of the digital world, recent UW grad Neha Ravella said she was optimistic.

"It's not a static or singular thing," said Ravella, who earned a master's degree in Experimental Digital Media. "(I think about) cooperatives, alternative ways of governing data, accountiability and practices, solidarity economies, mutual aid and mutual-aid networks that were made even more visible through technology, especially in the COVID-19 pandemic. All of these actually fill me with hope.”